Christ is risen!
Truly He is risen!
But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (Acts 15:5-11)
By Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, we are told some Pharisees also believe in Christ, an amazing thing since they were among His chief opponents before His resurrection. In Acts 23:8, we read that the Pharisees did believe in the resurrection, now they accept that it has become reality in Jesus Christ. However, true to their Pharisaical nature, they are demanding that all who wish to follow Christ must be circumcised and keep the Law. St Peter defends the Gentile converts to Christianity by reminding all his fellow Jewish believers that the Law turned out to be a terrible burden that Israel was not able to fulfill, so why now impose it on the Gentiles when God has clearly given the Holy Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles? It is Peter who is arguing for grace – salvation is a gift from God and not dependent on a person’s willingness or ability to keep the Law. Peter argues it is not the Law that is to be proclaimed to all the people of the world, instead it is Christ and the Gospel which are to be proclaimed to the world as this is God’s own plan of salvation for any who believe. Paul comes to the same conclusion, and though he was a Pharisee, as a Christian, he sees that it is not through keeping Torah that any (including Jews) are saved. Circumcision is unimportant, either way. “Was any one at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was any one at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:18-19). For Paul circumcision is neither good nor evil, but a matter of total indifference for all who accept that Jesus is the Messiah.
In Acts 15, after debating the issue, the apostles come to a decision regarding the Law and the message which is to be carried to all the people of the world:
Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. They wrote this letter by them: ”The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, ‘You must be circumcised and keep the law’ – to whom we gave no such commandment – it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:22-29)
Not only do the apostles and elders of the nascent Church decide circumcision is a matter of indifference to the spiritual life, they conclude that Christ has replaced Torah, and so the Law itself is no longer the way to love God or follow the Messiah. What the Apostles are doing is no longer looking at each of the 613 laws of Torah to see which of them is mandated for all people. Rather, they are considering what was the purpose of the Law to begin with. Their conclusion is that the Law has been fulfilled by and in Jesus Christ, and thus is no longer the way to please God. In fact, they recognize that the Law never enabled the Jews to please God, for they were never able to live up to its requirements. The Law served a purpose for the Jews for a time, but a new era has been reached with a New Covenant bringing about a new creation. Now God has freed both Jews and Gentiles from the burden of the Law and the dividing wall it represented. Biblical scholar Morna D. Hooker in her wonderful book, From Adam to Christ: Essays on Paul, writes:
The logic of Paul’s argument is… an exposition of Christ as the replacement of the Jewish Torah, in terms which have been taken from the Wisdom literature. It is Christ, in whom all treasures of knowledge and wisdom are hid, who is the true Wisdom of God, who was with God from the beginning and through whom and by whom the universe was created. But for the Jew, the Wisdom of God is identical with the Torah. In claiming for Christ what has been said of Wisdom, Paul is claiming that he has replaced the Jewish Torah; it is Christ, not the Torah, who is older than creation, the instruction of creation, the principle upon which creation itself depends and to which it coheres…Jesus Christ had indeed replaced the Torah as the revelation both of God’s glory and of his purpose for the universe and for mankind. (p 135-136)
The 4th Century’s St Ephrem the Syrian expresses the same idea in his poetry, noting that in different eras, God provided different forms of the Law, and each form was entirely appropriate to the era it was given, but is not applicable to every generation. God gives law at different times to His people to help them through specific eras, but when the law fulfills its purpose it is no longer in force. Ephrem frames it in terms of healing – God provided specific laws to heal people, as they needed healing, but His healing laws were not meant to last forever, but only until the healing occurred, and then the laws became obsolete and not obligatory to future generations.
For the kinds of action were distinct, – in one age, compared to its companion.
But if the law of one age – continued to apply to all ages,
Why did the Flood then destroy – those who had not approached the tree?
For if that expression had passed on – from Adam to Noah,
What would be the retribution, – since Noah and the rest of his generation had nothing to do with Adam’s sin?
You must therefore conclude that every age – similarly has its own commandments.
Whatever is spoken in an age – is designed to help the people of that age.
According to this economy – the statements [of scripture] are many and multiplied.
. . .
There are some commandments which have been set aside, – because the former sickness is no more.
There are other commandments which remain in force, – because the sicknesses remain uncured.
The Apostles and the Prophets both – are physicians of souls.
According to mankind’s suffering – corresponds also the consolation [they offered].
According to the ills that afflicted their ages, – they applied their remedies …
There were the successive ills of each age after the other, – and there were the ills common to every age.
As new ills presented themselves, – they administered new remedies.
. . .
Today the commandments – of sabbath, circumcision, and purification are no longer in force.
They have become superfluous for those of the last age, – [though] they were useful to those of the middle age.
For those of the first age they were useless, – for their knowledge was healthy and complete.
Nor were they at all useful to those of the last age – for their faith [too] is healthy and complete.
These commandments only ministered to those of the middle age, – who had been smitten with paganism. (Andrew Hayes, METRICAL DISCOURSES ON FAITH BY THE BLESSED MAR EPHREM, pp 49-50)
So Ephrem argues that Torah was given to combat paganism, but once Christ came, paganism and idolatry came to an end, and so Torah was no longer needed to heal people of the ills caused by paganism. Now that we are in the last era, the age of Christ, we need only Christ to heal our spiritual ills and to unite us to our God but Torah no longer heals us and so is not mandated for any people. Now the Law in effect is the law of love.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)